The late Eqbal Ahmed (1933-1999) was an indefatigable campaigner for peace and sanity. He was Professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was also managing editor of the quarterly Race and Class. MMN is commemorating his anniversary (May 10) by publishing some of his work.
In the Middle East, ironies abound. But none is more replete with them than the recent history of Palestine. The era of decolonisation began in August 1947 with the independence of India and Pakistan. Less than a year later, Palestine was colonised by a movement which aimed to establish an early form — settler colonialism — which had caused the destruction of great civilisations and peoples in the western hemisphere. The Mayas, Incas, Aztecs and the Indian peoples of the western hemisphere were victims of barely recognised holocausts. Later, in Algeria and southern Africa, this form of colonialism resulted in the dispossession and destitution of the natives.
Genocide or dispossession has been integral to this colonial form. So it followed that the Zionist leaders would seek to rid themselves of the native Arabs in Palestine. The point was lost on Arab, including Palestinian, leaders, and they made no real effort to prevent the expulsion in 1948 of an overwhelming majority of Palestinians from their homes. Zionism’s primary goal — to establish an exclusionary Jewish state — was achieved. Later, another conquest would compound Israel’s “problem”.
Dispossession and exclusion of the native people and their separation from the settler population are among the common features of settler colonialism. The drive to dispossess — take away from the natives their land, water and other resources — often resulted in genocide as in the western hemisphere. In other places, such as Algeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa, it entailed extreme proletarianisation of the indigenous people, whereby they were reduced to a life of poverty in the service of the settler state and people. Which of the two fates befall the native has in the past depended largely on settler demographics. If the settler state is able to attract enough immigration of the “desirables” to not need the natives’ manpower, it tends largely to eliminate the natives, as was the case in the US and Canada. If immigration slows down and native manpower is needed to fuel a growing economy, then the colonised peoples survive in an impoverished, exploitative environment.
Separation of the settler from the native people has been a goal shared by all settler states. In the United States, surviving Indian tribes were finally “removed” to “reservations”. In Algeria, the separation was effective but not formalised; the French state was projected as an ideologically non-racist state. A combination of Algerian demographic superiority and highly organised resistance ended French rule and colon domination of Algeria. In South Africa, as the white population stagnated while the number of blacks continued to increase, the obsession with separation became so compelling that apartheid was imposed as the central feature of state policy. Three factors contributed greatly to the defeat of the white South African regime: one, it could not attract enough white immigrants to offset black demographics. Two, as an overtly racist formulation, apartheid was deeply abhorrent to world opinion. Three, the African National Congress and its supporters exploited these two weaknesses of the apartheid regime with intelligence, perseverance, planning and organisation.
The Zionist may be the best organised settler movement in history, and throughout this century it has demonstrated, in Edward Said’s apt phrase, an unusual degree of “the discipline of detail”. At its inception, Theodor Herzl had anticipated “spiriting away” the native Arabs, “gradually and circumspectly”. In 1948, Zionist leaders did better. They displayed ruthless resolve in systematically driving out a majority of Palestinians from the areas that they declared Israel. Thanks mainly to a new crop of Israel’s “revisionist” historians, this fact has finally been documented with scholarly rigour. Thus Israel became the first settler state to have largely resolved its “native problem” at the very beginning of its founding.
Still, its population was not large enough in 1949 to build a strong, economically viable state. Also, the Arab remnants were sufficiently large to pose a future challenge. The Zionist movement then launched a well organised campaign to obtain the migration of Arab Jews into Israel. The history of how this happened has yet to be written; but in the next 15 years an overwhelming majority of Jews, who had lived in the Arab world for more than a 1,000 years, left for Israel. History will judge Arab governments of the time harshly for making it easy for Israel and the Zionist movement. Future generations of Arabs shall pay the price of their prejudice, greed, and incompetence. By 1965, with the influx of the Sephardic Jews, Israel’s problem seemed to have been resolved.
But history had willed differently. In 1967, the self-styled “Jewish state” won another war and colonised a million more Arabs. It wanted to keep the land but not the people. Expulsion did not quite work this time; only 250,000 Arabs left the occupied territories in the aftermath of the war and nearly a million remained. The PLO rose to prominence then, mimicking wars of liberation past (Algeria) and present (Vietnam) without paying attention to Palestinian and Israeli realities. Its great achievements were two-fold: it boosted for a while a badly damaged Palestinian and Arab morale, and it imposed the question of Palestine upon the consciousness of the world. Beyond that it failed. From crass opportunism and unexamined sentiment, Arab governments gave it uncritical support. The PLO was a centralised one-man show. The chairman seemed to have no clue to his adversary’s schemes, its strengths or vulnerabilities, and he showed no inclination to develop — so Edward Said kept telling him — “the discipline of detail” and a democratic resistance movement. Arafat and, with the exception of Shafiq Al-Hout and Abu Iyad, the PLO’s leaders, remained oblivious to Israel’s strategies and the uselessness of “armed struggle” in countering them. I am tempted to cite a personal experience.
When I first encountered Arafat, Israel and the Zionist organisations had already launched a well-organised campaign to get the Soviet Jewry into Israel. This superbly orchestrated, multi-layered campaign began in earnest a mere two years after the 1967 War. I was appalled to note that Palestinian and official Arab circles were oblivious to this development. They paid no attention to it, even though it had far-reaching implications for their future. When I first met Yasser Arafat in 1979, I brought the matter up. He looked bewildered, as though wondering what the hell Soviet Jewry had to do with Palestine. When I explained, he jotted something in a little notebook, told an aide to look into the matter, and said to me: “Soviet leaders will not allow that to happen.” There it was: a focus on leaders, a disregard of politics and civil society, of organised militancy and the processes it can unfold. In fact, the Zionist campaign was already succeeding. In the United States, the Jackson Amendment had linked US-Soviet dtente to the migration of Soviet Jews exclusively to Israel. Within a decade, the migration of well-qualified Russian Jews turned from a trickle to a flood. The PLO and Arab governments did nothing to counter Israel’s extraordinary campaign to offset the demographic burden of its 1967 conquest.
More than a million Soviet Jews poured into Israel, reinforcing its exclusionary agenda and transforming its economic future.
But the Arab problem remains. There are still enough Arabs in the conquered areas to pose a future threat to Israel’s character as a Jewish state. Five decades more, and the Palestinian population in “Eretz Israel” will be large enough to pose a threat to Israel’s discriminatory statehood. At this point in time, “transfer”, which is a favored euphemism in Israel for the expulsion of remaining Palestinians, is not a realistic option. Israeli leaders are known to have considered it and concluded that, without a major war, this cannot be done on a meaningful scale. Such a war is unlikely. So there is, inevitably, the search for a mechanism of separating — spatially and juridically — a significant section of Arabs from the Israeli order. But Israeli leaders seek to separate without relinquishing conquered land, at least not much of it. A useful formula appeared after the Camp David Accords which had envisaged Palestinian “autonomy” as a first step toward statehood. “Autonomy for the people, not the land”, Israeli leaders had insisted. Therein lay the blueprint for a new Bantustan. Oslo provides the mechanism for its realisation.
All settler schemes lead to some form of apartheid. With a Palestinian leadership sunk in a quagmire of corruption and collaboration, the Arab states divided and dependent, and a most beneficent superpower as Israel’s patron, the Oslo process offers an opportunity Israel cannot miss. Even the most hard-line expansionists like Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon cannot afford to spurn it. So they must shape it the best they can. Complaining, protesting, and playing hard to get is part of the game. A lot of it was on display on the banks of Wye River.
Yasser Arafat chose the site. He rejected Camp David because he did not wish to be linked to what he had once described as Anwar El-Sadat’s “surrender”. This was his only independent contribution to this “peace agreement”. Otherwise he handed over the Palestinians’ future to President Clinton and his aides, who took their cues from the Israelis. The Americans found their “strategic ally” playing the game in an unusually crude fashion, and did not quite like it. But what could they do with a tail that knows how to wag the dog? The timing — a few days after Congress voted to conduct impeachment hearings against Clinton, and less than two weeks before the congressional elections — was Clinton’s, most unfavourable to the Arab side and most advantageous to Israel. Israeli officials, who control key votes in the House and the Senate, could not have walked into the conference room at Wye holding stronger cards. Bibi Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon played theirs to the hilt — sulking, pounding, threatening walk out, feigning departure, and demanding even an American surrender of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. (Clinton has promised to review the matter, a precedent unique in US history.) Before arriving late in Wye, Sharon had already visited King Hussein in a Texas hospital. He returned the favour with his helpful and very moving presence.
The document signed at the White House is not yet public. Only the outlines are known. The Palestinian Authority (PA), which had municipal control over three per cent of the West Bank, will now exercise it on another 13 per cent. Some 14.2 per cent will be under “joint control”. The remaining 72.8 per cent will stay under Israeli occupation. In all the 16 per cent of PA-administered West Bank territory, Israel will continue to hold the occupier’s sovereign powers. Israel will release some of the 3,500 Palestinian prisoners it holds, mostly without trial. No restrictions or limits are imposed on Jewish settlements or the armed zealots of Zion in the West Bank and Gaza. No restrictions are known to have been imposed on Israeli demolition of Arab homes, expropriation of land, or diversion of water.
In return, the PA will deliver to Israel 30 of the 31 Palestinians identified by Israel as “terrorists”. It will have its Executive Committee and the Palestine National Council publicly renounce a clause in its Charter which it had already renounced, and invite President Clinton to the re-renunciation ceremony. (The clause enunciates the goal of destroying Israel as an exclusionary state). The PA will take systematic steps, in collaboration with Israel, to nab Palestinian terrorists. Finally, there is this innovation: the American CIA will supervise and monitor the Palestinian Authority’s anti-terrorist performance. The media described the signing ceremony as very moving. King Hussein’s speech brought tears to many, including presidential, eyes.
When Oslo One was signed, I described it as a “peace of the weak”. This one goes further. Readers may wish to withhold judgement. To me it looks like the rebirth of Apartheid, more intractable this time because it has been midwifed by a superpower and legitimated by an international agreement.